Sam Darnold putting Panthers, himself in position for success by 'staying patient'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers faced third-and-goal from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 5-yard line early in the second quarter. Pressure came up the middle and flushed quarterback Sam Darnold out of the pocket to his right.

Darnold didn’t panic. With three defenders bearing down as he neared the sideline, he drilled a pass to DJ Moore, a defender draped over the wide receiver's back, in the front corner of the end zone.


For all the plays Darnold has made during his 3-1 run as the starting quarterback that has the Panthers (6-9) in position to take control of the NFC South with a win against quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), it was this one two weeks ago, during his lone loss, that showed how far he has come.

Darnold turned a bad situation into a good one, instead of making a bad situation worse.

It goes back to the mentality Darnold’s dad instilled in him at a young age in another sport.

“Let the game come to me,’’ Darnold said. “My dad’s always told me from when I was a little kid playing baseball, he’s always just said don’t force anything, let the game come to you. That’s kind of been my mentality. Just staying patient with everything, and when I have my shots, take them and hit them.’’

Darnold has taken a lot of shots since the New York Jets made him the No. 3 overall pick of the 2018 draft. Most have been by defenders in the pocket and from fans upset with his play.

He was so inconsistent in New York that the Jets gave up on him after three seasons and traded him to Carolina in 2021. Then the Panthers gave up on him after one season and acquired Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, in July, and he beat out Darnold for the starting job in training camp.

But Darnold never lost confidence, even after suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason finale that sidelined him for months. While Mayfield and backup quarterback PJ Walker ran the offense the first 11 games, Darnold spent time hanging out with defensive players and learning intricacies that have helped him better understand how to handle pressure.

Now Mayfield is with the Los Angeles Rams (via trade), Walker is the backup and Darnold is starting in the most relevant game of his career Sunday against arguably the best quarterback in NFL history.

Multiple current and former league executives said Darnold is playing himself into a prove-it, short-term deal as a low-end starter/high-end backup in the range of $10 million to $12 million per season, be it with Carolina or another team in 2023.

The Panthers probably will have interest in keeping him if the price is right.

“I’m not the most showy guy in the world, but I’ve always believed in myself,’’ Darnold said. “The biggest thing is staying patient and taking what the defense gives you. I know it’s cliché, but it’s the easiest way to play football.’’

There aren’t many times, if any, you could say the 25-year-old Darnold has played better than Tom Brady.

But heading into Sunday's NFC South showdown with Tampa Bay, Darnold is, statistically.

Since becoming the starter Week 12, Darnold has a Total Quarterback Rating of 58.9 that ranks 11th in the NFL. His yards per attempt (8.6) rank first, his yards per dropback (7.6) rank first, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio (4-0) ranks second.

During that same span Brady ranks 22nd in Total QBR (41.1), 30th in passing yards per attempt (5.6), 25th in yards per dropback (5.4) and 24th in touchdowns to interception (9-7).

Darnold’s ability to eliminate interceptions has been huge. He had 45 touchdowns to 39 interceptions in three seasons with the Jets and 13 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in 12 games last season for the Panthers.

He’d never had a stretch of more than three games without an interception.

“You can see his confidence in the throws he’s making,’’ guard Austin Corbett said. “We’ve seen these incredibly tight windows, and he’s just dropping a dime in a bucket 40 yards down the field. His ability to throw on the move and sit in the pocket, it has been incredible.’’

Darnold has shown dramatic improvement when the offensive line has given him time to throw. Over the past four games, he has a league-best 82.7 Total QBR and league-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (3-0) when having 2.5 seconds or more. Last season, he ranked 29th with a Total QBR of 37.6 with 2.5 seconds or more, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio (5-12) was a league worst.

He has been sacked only six times in four games and had two games with no sacks. He was sacked an average of 2.66 times a game his first four seasons.

Darnold’s effort against zone defenses is like night and day. He has a 63.7 QBR that is sixth best since Week 12, and his 10.3 yards per attempt rank first. Last season, he had a 29.3 QBR (29th) against zone defenses and averaged 6.31 yards per attempt (29th). His 2-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio against zone defense was tied for last in 2021.

“Once you put him behind a line that can protect him, he can go through his progressions pretty good,’’ interim coach Steve Wilks said. “He’s building a lot of confidence. You can see it. I see it in practice with each period and each rep with the throws that he’s making.’’

Darnold will never be compared to Cam Newton, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history. But Darnold can hurt opponents with his legs.

He had a career-high five designed rushes in Saturday’s 37-23 win over Detroit. His 2.0 designed rushes per his four games in 2022 are the highest of his career (1.33 last season).

Darnold joked he was inspired by the effort of his backs that helped set a team single-game record with 320 yards rushing against the Lions.

“Yeah, whenever I see those guys run I’m, ‘Dang, I want some of that,’’’ said Darnold, who rushed six times for 19 yards and a touchdown against Detroit. “… Whenever I get my chance, I’m going to do my part in the running game.’’

But it was the way Darnold ran out of the pocket in the scramble drill and found Moore for the touchdown against Pittsburgh that impressed offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo the most.

“You saw his feet come alive,’’ McAdoo said. “You saw him take a step. That’s encouraging for us.’’

It’s exciting for former teammates, such as Jets quarterback Mike White.

“He’s one of the best human beings I’ve come across in the NFL,’’ White said. “I’m always and forever rooting for his success, so seeing him do [this], it’s a lot of fun.”

Mayfield agreed.

"Sam's rolling right now,'' he said. "They’ve got the run game going, so it's fun to see that.”

Darnold goes back to lessons learned from his father.

“It’s all about understanding situations,’’ Darnold said. “It’s about continuing to be smart with the football and being patient.’’

Sarah Barshop and Rich Cimini contributed to this story.